by J. Fallthrough

He introduced me as his sister, as if that's all I was. His sibling, a random accident of birth, a point on one of those family trees. She wasn't what I expected. Her skin was perfect and her smile was cutely lopsided. They had spent the day outdoors, and his hair was bleached almost to the off-white it was when I fled with him. She handed me a tin of snickerdoodles. She knew my favorite cookie. They had talked about me. I put on the kettle for tea. We moved from the kitchen to the dining room. When the kettle whistled, I poured three cups and set theirs down first. I came back with mine and she asked for a cookie. He jumped up and said, “I'll get it.” When he placed the tin on the table, she pried open the top eagerly and took out two cookies. She chewed deliberately.

            “Jack tells me you're thinking of selling this place,” she said, sweeping her eyes around the room, her mouth full.

            “Maybe, eventually ….” he answered before I could say anything.

            “We're thinking of downsizing. It's a lot of room for the two of us, especially now that I'm not working and Jack is … well … he never started,” I said. I twisted my mouth into a smile and looked at him. He stared down at his hands.

            “You don't consider making art work?” she asked and narrowed her eyes.

             I was honestly confused for a minute. I had never thought of the made-up animals Jack crafted out of scraps of wood and stuff he found at the dump to be art.

            She asked again if I didn't consider making art work.

            “Well, I can't send a bee with horns and a split tongue to the bank to cover the mortgage, can I?”

            She laughed, too loudly. He tittered a little and didn't take his eyes off her.

            I felt my face get red, and I wanted to be sure she knew it was from anger and not embarrassment.

            “I guess craft projects become art when the maker is 42-years-old,” I said.

            Now his face turned red. She rubbed the back of his neck. I was the one who encouraged Jack to be creative. I gave him rocks and sticks and bits of moss to put together when we hid in the woods for the first few days. I called him “Jack” because he loved the jackrabbits that sprinted off in the distance, and because he needed a name.

            She looked around the room again and said, “You probably could use a smaller place. It's too big for two and would be especially so for one.”

            We sipped our tea in silence for a while. When they were ready to go, she slid the lid back on the tin of cookies and said, “Since you're not interested.” She headed out with the tin in one hand and Jack's hand in the other. I watched them back out of the driveway, she  looking behind her and Jack in the passenger seat pretending not to see me. They drove away and I saw that one of Jack's sculptures was crammed into the hatchback.

            I went into Jack's room. He had installed a padlock on the door, but I found a key in one of his socks when I was doing laundry. The picture of Gran H that was usually on his nightstand was missing and I searched around for it. I found it face down in his underwear drawer. Gran H was the grandmother I'd made up for him, and when I found a picture of an old women in a pile of photos in a thrift store, I knew she was the right one. Chubby face, watery eyes. Gran H was loving and took care of us when our parents died in that terrible car accident on a rainy night. Hydroplaned, I told Jack. In an Audi 100. Then one day Gran H died and it was just us. That's when I became everything for him, or at least way more than a mere sister.

            I put the picture back on Jack's nightstand and traced my finger around the silhouette of Gran H, a woman long dead, whose picture no one wanted to keep. A woman who maybe wasn't even a grandmother.

I had saved Jack twice: once literally and once from the truth. Because our real grandmother was no Gran H. “Finally, finally, finally a boy after this glut of girls,” she had said when he was born, and we all knew what she meant, and Mom and Dad were relieved because for them a boy meant they didn't have to have more kids, and all the suspicion about our branch of the family only having girls would fade. I was sixteen, old enough to help with the delivery, and I was the first one to see his blood-smeared head push through my mother's gaping cleft.

Jack didn't come home until the next day, and he found me asleep in his bed. I woke when he sat down next to me. He opened his wallet and took out two crisp $100 bills that still smelled of ink. “I sold a piece. Well, actually Brit sold it for me,” he said.

I was quiet for a few seconds and then said, “Congratulations.”

“I want to start contributing something to the house—as long as I'm here,” he said.

“As long as you're here?” I answered.

He looked down and stayed quiet.

I got out of bed and started walking out of the room.

Jack followed me with the two hundred dollars.

“Take this,” he said.

“Don't need it.”

I closed the door behind me, leaving him on the other side with the money in his fist.

I didn't need it. After saving Jack, making money became my primary goal. I liked how money was at once concrete and magical. How it could be used to communicate all sorts of things and how it offered protection and control and freedom. And it did it all without bloodshed. It was just clean, neat numbers ticking up or down. The larger the number the more magic you had and no one had to be sacrificed.

Jack kept giving me money. I knew it was coming when I'd peek into the shed in the backyard where he made his ridiculous animals and find an empty space where one had stood or the table he worked at was suddenly cleared of his latest project. I stopped trying to give it back, but I didn't spend it either.

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I didn't see her for a few weeks after that, but I knew Jack did. He'd leave without saying goodbye and come home at odd hours. It was the middle of summer and once I caught him coming home at night through an open window, thinking he wouldn't wake me. He touched his finger to his lips and said “Shhhh,” as if I weren't already awake and standing in front of him.

The next time I saw her I was mowing the lawn in the backyard, making perfect strips of shorn grass. I wore a halter top that showed my sagging skin and unshaved armpits. I had stopped caring about how I looked at around the same time as the mothers I knew did.  

When I reached the shed, the door was open. The smell of smoldering metal drifted out of it. A brochure with pictures of Jack's sculptures lay on a table, and a fan fluttered its pages. They were there, in the middle of the room, locked in a kiss, him enveloping her tiny frame and she with her hands gripped at his sides. The lawnmower still roared, but neither of them moved. Jack's hair was now bleached to the color it was when he was boy. For years after we had fled a vision chased me. The off-white top of nameless Jack's head was encircled by the water of the Lake of the Lamb. Our grandmother's bony fingers pressed his shoulders until the off-white circle disappeared below the water.

            I felt the stab of fear I had felt so often in those days. It erupted like some long-dormant virus that had tricked me into believing it was gone. Without even thinking about it, I lightly touched Jack's head. He swung around, stunned

            “What are you doing?” he shouted loud enough so that I heard it clearly over the buzzing of the lawn mower.

            “What the fuck?” she shouted. There was more disgust than anger in her face

            I stood there, frozen. Everything I thought to say died in me before I could utter it.

            They still stared. His face demanded an explanation. Hers telegraphed that there could be none.

            “I—I—,” I said, dumbly.

            “Can you just leave us alone? Go do …  something with yourself and let your brother have—"

            Jack held up his hand and she stopped talking.

            “Just go back to mowing the lawn. We can talk later, but Brit and I—we'll talk later.”

            Jack's voice had a seriousness and certainty to it that made me realize how hollow it normally sounded.

            She moved first, grabbing Jack around the waist and turning her to him. She stood on her tiptoes and he immediately bent down so his lips could meet hers. She pulled him closer. He thrust his hips into hers. She twisted her leg around his. They drew each other nearer and nearer. I left the shed, grabbed hold of the idling lawnmower and stomped a straight line across the strips I had made earlier to the house. The grass spit out of the machine, leaving a mangled green trail behind me. By the time I got to the backdoor I was sure of two things: 1. I had lost Jack; and 2. only the truth could bring him back to me. And three, if I added that I now knew truth had its own time. It had to come only when it could be taken in and used for the right course of action.

            I turned off the lawnmower and went to my bedroom. I flung open the dresser drawer where I had kept the money Jack gave me. It was now around a thousand dollars. A joke, really, that he saw this as contributing. He was a child. A child, with what the Church of the Final Redeemer had called the “devil's current” thrumming in him. It had been sparked by her, just when it should be starting to ebb.

I spread out the money, mostly twenties, on my desk, grabbed a pen, and started writing. I told Jack about how the whole thing had started in that first year when our great-grandparents and their small group of followers settled on the land no one wanted. They barely scraped by, and a few of the congregation left within a couple of months. Then our Great-uncle drowned in a stream by the church they had built. Great-grandmother found him, face down. She pulled his stiff two-year-old body out of the water and brought him home to bed, praying that he would come back to life for five days. She would have continued, but Great-grandfather wrapped him in his bedsheet and buried him in the plot of land that would become our cemetery.

After that, the community stabilized and eventually prospered. Great-grandmother was convinced that this was only because of the death of her firstborn son and she demanded that each family make their sacrifice. With some of the other men, Great-grandfather dug out the Lake of the Lamb and Great-grandmother decreed that grandmothers would act as executioners. “Mothers would be too squeamish and fathers could never really understand the depth of the sacrifice,” she said. They were to pray for five days afterward, as she did. This would all come to an end when one day the prayers would work and a child would rise up, dry and clean, from the Lake of the Lamb and take us all back home.

I wrote in a feverish scrawl on both sides of the bills, telling Jack everything. I wrote about our parents and the doubt I sometimes saw in them. I told him about the fights between them and Grandmother, whose other children had all produced the required son while they kept making girls, even as Mom neared forty. I even told him about how I named him because none of the firstborn boys got names. They belonged to God—not us—and for us to name them was to claim what wasn't ours and to show arrogance before the Almighty. When I was done, I put the bills into an envelope, sealed it, and wrote “For Jack ONLY” on the outside. I went to his room, and put the envelope under the picture of Gran H. Then I got in my car and drove around for the rest of the day.

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I waited after that. Waiting, for the first time, seemed like an activity to me. Not anxious time to be distracted from, but a thing in itself. I let everything go because I was waiting. The garbage piled up. When the fall came the leaves moldered on the ground and smelled of rot. I stopped doing laundry. I only left the house to buy food. The envelope was gone, taken on that day exactly a year ago. Now Jack knew. Once when I went out grocery shopping, I came home to find the picture of Gran H missing. I didn't count that as a return, but, from then on, I slept in Jack's room, so I wouldn't miss him if he came back. Eventually, I spent almost all of my time in there. I moved in a TV and my computer, and ate my meals in his bed. I had set limits for the duration of waiting I'd allow. First a day; then a week; then a month; and, finally, a year. Today, I would double that. I'd wait for Jack for another year. He'd come home by then and, when he did, we'd go back to our normal life. I wouldn't ask questions, especially not at first. I'd let Jack come to me in his own time, and one day he would. He'd turn to me while we were eating dinner or planting something in the garden or watching a movie. He'd say he wanted to talk about the money, and he'd tell me all about how he had squandered it, with her.